Serving Those Who Have Served
For more than 30 years, Meredith Nickles has been helping USF’s student veterans.
USF.edu News Writer
Assistant Director Veterans Services
Thanks to Meredith Nickles, at the end of Leroy Collins Blvd. in front of USF’s Administration Building, there’s a POW/MIA flag waving in the breeze. She obtained the first one for the university in 1990 and arranged for it to be raised in a dignified ceremony.
Honoring and serving our country’s veterans is in Meredith Nickles’ blood. It’s her mission at the University of South Florida – and her personal passion.
Part of USF’s Office of Veterans Services for more than 30 years and currently assistant director, the first students Nickles served were Vietnam War vets. So she says there’s a special place in her heart for them – and you can tell that’s true when you visit her office.
While Nickles no longer wears her POW/MIA bracelet, it’s still a cherished possession, a remnant of history that she keeps close by. There’s also a photograph of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. hanging on her wall – the somber beauty of the black granite wall serving as a stark reminder that for her, nothing is more important than serving those who have served and sacrificed for her country – veterans returning home from Vietnam, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, or any other foreign country, as well as those who may have remained stateside in their service.
Originally a physical education and health teacher who has taught kindergarten through 12th grade, Nickles’ master’s degree in counseling led to her first position working with veterans at a community college in Connecticut.
“I really didn’t know much at all about veterans at the time,” she says, recalling how overwhelmed she felt the first time she worked with a student and realized how much she had to learn.
Much has changed in three decades.
At USF, the Office of Veterans Affairs, once part of the Counseling Center and the Registrar’s Office before that, is now a stand-alone department with its own director.
The new Post 9/11 GI Bill is bringing to USF an influx of more veterans eager to start or continue their college education – a trend that is going to continue for some time.
And today colleagues refer to Nickles as “the answer lady,” because when it comes to assisting veterans with the extensive and complicated paperwork required for them to receive their education benefits, there’s no one at USF who is more knowledgeable than she is.
How to access educational benefits. How to obtain certification. Forms to file when requesting benefits for a particular semester. Forms for changing the number of credit hours. Nickles is always on top of the most current procedures and changes regarding the processing of education paperwork.
Her secret? For one, Nickles is constantly reading and filing away information. Since 1975, she has been a member, as well as served on the board, of the National Association of Veteran Program Administrators – a resource she finds indispensable. In addition, she has developed strong ties with VA staff.
“I have a great network of people I can call upon to help resolve just about any question that comes up,” she says. “There’s nothing more rewarding than solving a problem for a student.”
While the number of student veterans on campus has ebbed and flowed over the years, Nickles says that USF has a long and strong history of serving members of the armed forces. It’s a commitment that led to USF becoming the first university in the country to strike an accord with the Department of Veterans Affairs to offer special services for veterans taking advantage of the new GI Bill called VetSuccess on Campus. In addition, USF is currently the only public university in Florida participating in a VA program called “Yellow Ribbon” that reduces tuition for student veterans.
These efforts are among the many reasons why the university was recently designated by GI Jobs magazine as a military friendly school, placing USF in the top 15 percent of all higher education institutions nationwide.
“Each vet who comes through the door is unique,” says Nickles. “Each has his or her own story and concerns, and deserves to be treated as an individual.
“I take a personal interest in their success.”
Mary Beth Erskine can be reached at 813-974-6993.